Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don_Quixote

There are two Don Quixote’s.

There is the wise man, dispensing philosophy and wisdom to anyone who will listen; astounding people with his insight when they witness the second Don Quixote, a madman absolutely certain he is a knight errant, pursued by evil enchanters and engaging in combat with giants and beasts.

There’s literally two different Don Quixote’s. The books, I mean. Not just in the two parts, written 10 years apart after Cervantes finally succumbed to fan demand and wrote a sequel, but an actual second one written by a different man — Avellaneda — and ridiculed by Cervantes in part 2 of the official text. Before the modern novel was even truly established, Cervantes was writing postmodern: self-referential work, breaking the fourth wall, a string of narrators deeper than House of Leaves.

And of course, we have the character as he exists in the text, jousting windmills and pining for non-existent maidens and traipsing all over Spain. But also the archetype, the towering figure that spans four hundred years of literary culture. Without reading the novel, you know him, a gaunt figure atop a skinny nag, his plump squire not far behind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are singular figures, even reading this book in the 21st century when they’ve been parodied and copied and rehashed so many times it’s difficult to even envision a time before them.

I thought the first part of Don Quixote was merely pretty good. The pacing was bizarre and it frequently split off entirely from the titular hero for random characters to tell side-stories about other random characters. Iconic scenes like the windmill-mishap just weren’t quite as striking as I hoped. It was humorous though. After I finished it, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it for several years. Disappointed with what I had been reading recently, and not really knowing what to take on text, I found it on my bookshelf and started part 2 on a whim.

Unlike part 1, the story focused entirely on Don Quixote and Sancho; Cervantes had grown as a writer and had a finer touch on what he wanted those characters to be, likely in part due to the imposter text written by Avellaneda that had turned up in the interim. The latter writer insisted Sancho was a glutton and Cervantes couldn’t stand it! There’s multiple scenes where Sancho explains he’s a hungry man, but not a gluttonous one. The story continues to have a very strange pacing — the characters just sort of bound from one adventure to another without much continuity or focus, they have muddied goals and then their quest just sort of ends, abruptly. But the charm is unmistakable and I found myself deeply sad when Don Quixote comes to his senses, proclaims his madness, and finally croaks.

Dubliners by James Joyce

dublinersThe Dublin I visited was a cacophonous jungle of tourism, seemingly as many visitors as locals. The Guinness factory was beer-disney world. A heat wave passed through, so it was humid and sticky. Trinity College, Grafton Street, St. Stevens Green were such a crush of people, it was hard to discern the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun (though not nearly as much fun as in the western portions of the country), but it was nearly a total flip of James Joyce’s Ireland.

Indeed, Dubliners is a sparse, wet, cold Dublin. Full of sad people in sad vocations in unfulfilling marriages. Alcoholism is like a plague, the pledge a desperate but typically hopeless cure. All of the characters share some great disappointment in their lives — family, passion, work, travel. Everyone is trying to get away and no one appears to be visiting. As a reader, you become suspicious when anyone appears happy because experience has taught you it must be a facade or hope will inevitably be dashed.

I liked it. Mostly. There’s a few duds but standouts like:

The Dead: The longest story and Joyce’s most well known. A joyous celebration followed by dismal ennui.

Araby: A teen boy tries to get his father to drive him to the bazaar to buy a gift for a girl; a perfect picture of adolescent disappointment.

A Mother: A dedicated & shrewd mother maneuvers her daughter into a stage performance; one of those stories that takes a potentially boring and low-stress situation and makes it tense and meaningful.

Yet, my vision of Joyce, not having read any before is influenced by Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, notoriously difficult and esoteric reads. I was actually somewhat disappointed that Dubliners is so straightforward. Joyce uses short, clear sentences that describe the characters and action in precise fashion. The subtext is generally very clear — low hanging metaphorical fruit ala The Great Gatsby.

There’s an ‘Irish’ question that persists today. English influence versus Irish tradition, maintaining the old ways and the old language and discarding anglo-imitation slash adoration. Characters have conflicts like how swell and sophisticated they feel traveling to Paris or London vs. the disdain they receive for never visiting parts of their own country or being able to speak the language. It’s a continuing topic in Irish discourse and there’s been success on the traditional front — more people can speak Irish Gaelic than they could 10-15 years ago.

Dubliners influence on modern writers is clear. Thomas Pynchon is obvious, and the protagonists of A Painful Case or Counterparts could easily be some of the men in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Yet unlike either of those writers, Joyce feels almost entirely free from irony or humorous cynicism; Dubliners is more like an earnest depiction of a very Irish problem. One that I didn’t see on the streets of Dublin but absolutely absorbed through the media (radio especially), temperament, black humor, and people from other parts of the country.

Closed for vacation.

Haven’t updated in a while. Because I am on vacation.

In Dublin, reading Dubliners.

In literary tourism news, I beheld The Book of the Kells, an ancient & illustrated rendition of the New Testament, which was positively stunning. Modern day has lost the synthesis between content and the shape of text and its accompanying imagery. And it’s a shame. It makes me happy I just picked up the latest Mark Danielski novel.

Scanned transparancies

Scent. Books. Memory.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

You know the way scent interacts with memory? Like you smell something you haven’t smelled in years, say a very specific kind of pie, and instantly you’re reliving Christmas morning when you were eleven, right before you smelled (and ate) that same pie?

Books are like that for me. In the shorter term, I can take a look at the books I read in the past year or two, just flip through random blog pages here, and immediately remember where I was. A bus or a train or plane or a couch. What was happening at the time. Work. Life. There’s deep associations between the life I am living and the book I am reading. Scent plays a factor too. I purposely bought a box set of Lord of the Rings hardcovers years ago because they’re identical to the copies I read when I was a kid; the smell of the pages is a thrilling sensory memory of the excitement I felt when I first laid eyes upon middle earth.

I find myself musing because I am reading the second part of Don Quixote. According to goodreads, I read the first part in September of 2011. It’s been sitting on my shelf — actually on three or four different shelves to match my changing apartments — with the bookmark dead center since. I picked it up when I found myself completely unable to decide what to read next.

And the memory sense kicked in big time. The heft of the book, the jagged-edge pages, the feats of the peerless knight errant himself. It connects me to a self that feels removed. A separate coast, an enormously different life. Life changes of course, but it can be difficult to quantify. The sense and memory shift that can be achieved with something so simple as opening a book helps me grasp that fact.

A Void by Georges Perec

voidI usually know that I won’t finish a book within the first few pages. Unbearable prose or unendurable monotony. Self gratulatory faux-cleverness or narrators throttling me with reprehensible social views. I give it a chance to turn it around but typically I’ve put it down by page thirty five or so. I do not write about these here. I’ve become quite good at selecting books, so it only happens a couple times a year. Rarer still is the book that I get well over halfway into and then quit. Which brings me to A Void.

I really wanted to like this. Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, which had the unlikely constraint of being a list of descriptions of rooms in a Parisian tenement at an exact moment in 1975, was excellent. A Void’s gimmick is that the text is entirely devoid of the letter e, both in its original french and its translated english. I thought this would be fascinating. It is, for a little while, and even though I did not like the book, the feat remains amazing, but the actual book as a novel one would like to read becomes tedious quickly.

The plot can be summed up thus: Anton Vowl is missing; his collection of unlikely and unrememberable friends set off to find him. Wacky hijinx ensue. I don’t care if they ever found him or not. It may have worked as a shorter work, because the beginning is enjoyable enough, but it rapidly becomes clear that english is a stilted, run-on, unfocused mess without the letter e. It is just not pleasant to read. Uncommon words replace commonly known ones with the letter e. What do Jonah and Ahab have in common? Not a whale, a grampus. This is what I was expecting and can range from clever to eye rolling, but is totally secondary to the actual pace and flow the sentences, wrecked by the missing vowel.

In addition, the novel is littered with references and allusions to great works of art. The literary ones I can handle fine but, what I assume to be links to great composers and painters, are unintelligible to me. There’s also plenty of latin, beyond the really obvious sayings that have made their way into english. And parts of the book are in french and not translated for some reason.

A frustrating read.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

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Geralt of Rivia is the Witcher, a chemically enhanced warrior/mage/alchemist/mutant trained to hunt through forest and fen for all that goes bump in the night. Or that is what he’s supposed to be doing when he’s not becoming enmeshed in world politics. Geralt is reserved and quiet until he’s ready to drop a one liner or brutal threat upon a ne’erdowell. The Witcher is both a fantasy series written by polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski and a video game series based on the same. I’ve never read the books nor played the game (until now) but the latter has been on my radar for a while. I hear it named as a game with a great storyline and a fantasy series that is a more ‘mature’ alternative to the occasionally twee universe of Dragon Age.

And now the Witcher 3 has come out and received raving, gushing, positively euphoric reviews. This finally pushed me to get into the series (at part 2). Did I get what I was promised in the above paragraph? Mostly. The story was engaging and the world felt alive in a way that only something based on thousands of pages of text can be; This means loads of names and terms and countries and people and wars and arcana that can be easy to lose track of, but are summarily engrossing and immersive. It’s mostly typical medieval fantasy fare of the ‘gritty’ stripe. Life is cheap, prejudice abounds. A major plot point/theme is that elves and dwarves are oppressed and misused by humans and The Witcher pulls this off better than most users of this trope. It gets somewhat close to real oppression by realizing the situation is complicated and difficult to fix; there will never be a point where Geralt frees a bunch of slaves, gives a stirring speech in front of local government, and creates… peace.

The plot is literally the title — a super powered assassin is murdering kings. It’s somewhat ridiculous in summary but engaging in practice. Geralt is framed for the latest king’s death and sets out to clear his name. Three chapters take him to three different villages/cities. The choices he makes in each greatly change the following events. The end of chapter one either takes him (you) to fight for a non-human revolution or instead into the camp on the opposing side (I did the former and thus have little detail on the latter). Geralt himself is a solid protagonist and a contrast to many other western RPGs that allow you to create your own hero, something that lets you insert the persona you want but naturally disallows the history and character that can be imparted upon a singular creation.

Geralt comes equipped with a few different iconic Witcher abilities — he can throw fireballs, become invulnerable, fire off a shockwave to knock foes down, set magical traps, and force enemies to fight for him. It’s a small, focused ability set with silly names (‘I need to use Quen now so I can trap those enemies with Yrden and light them up with Igni!!’). The Witcher also comes equipped with both a steel sword and a silver sword slung across his back — the lore ties into older legends that spoke of using silver to fight certain creatures (think: werewolves and silver bullets). You switch swords depending on the foe. It’s a small thing that gives the world immense character.

The Witcher is far from flawless. It’s buggy, dialogue and cinematic transitions are janky, movement and looting items doesn’t always work as you’d expect and most strikingly: The game has a distinct problem with its portrayal of women. The game revels in the male gaze. In other words: women are throwing their clothes off on screen, which isn’t a problem necessarily in and of itself, but they are doing this so the camera can zoom in on them in ways that don’t even make sense in the context of the scene/plot/Geralt’s point of view. It’s just a show for the player, which is assumed to be a man. At one point, Geralt walks in on a woman inexplicably spanking another (and when he sees the spankee in the following chapter, he flashbacks to the scene again). All three characters just sort of look at each other and grin, before the scene continues on as if nothing happened. It’s a not a game that maturely acknowledges sex or bondage. It’s a game that throws women on the screen for men to treat like objects!

The Cave by Jose Saramago

thecaveCipriano’s plan could not have been simpler. He would go down a service elevator as far as floor zero five and then abandon himself to fate and to chance.

Starting this book, especially after reading the back cover blurb, you’d think this a dystopia story — a 1984-esque warning against materialism. You’re immediately introduced to The Center, the shadowy bureaucracy / super mall that rules the novel’s world. Police and security are everywhere. Oppression of common folk confined to shantytowns, vegetables grown in malevolent greenhouses.

But it’s not, not really. It’s a story about family (and pottery). An old man, his daughter, her husband, and their dog. Cipriano Algor, a 60ish potter whose father was a potter and whose grandfather was a potter and whose great-grandfather was probably a potter, suddenly finds his pottery business in great danger. People don’t buy handmade pottery anymore. They can buy plastic at the store and it’s cheaper and less likely to break. Cipriano hatches innovative pottery plans with his daughter Marta to reinvigorate the business while his son-in-law, Marcal, works as a security guard at The Center, a gigantic mall that has everything you could possibly want to buy or experience but is decidedly sinister to both Cipriano and the reader.

This is the plot for 250 of the novel’s 300 pages. The dangers of small business pottery. The love of family. The philosophical musings of Saramago’s working man protagonist as well as the very active presence of Saramago himself, in the form of an omniscient narrator who occasionally deems to speak directly to the reader. There’s meditations on class and love and the relationship between humans and dogs. It’s sentimental without being cloying and if the tone ever starts getting a little syrupy, you don’t even notice because by that point you’ve already become so attached to this small family.

This paragraph is dedicated to a dog. His name is Found (I bet this sounds like a better dog name in Saramago’s native portuguese) and he is the best written dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. The novel will swap to Found’s point of view as he ponders the incomprehensible workings of human activity. Or such serious dog-level concerns as: who to comfort first if two of the family are both sad and need a dog’s love? As Found becomes confused by his masters’ actions while showing them nothing but absolute love, you come to the conclusion that the absolute worst case scenario that could happen in this story is for Found to be separated from his family.

Saramago has a unique, streaming form or prose. Paragraph breaks barely exist and periods are rare. Phrases are strung along like locomotives, commas acting as railway couplings between them as they snake between hills. There are no quotation marks or pauses for dialogue; a capital letter signals that a different character is talking and the reader has to intuit who. Sometimes you lose track. It’s a perfect, dreamy style for this story and these characters who are continuously dreaming and pondering their lives whilst living in a nameless world steeped in metaphor.

Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.

Shovel Knight (Yacht Club Games, 2015)

shovel knight

Shovel Knight is a tribute, a homage, a loving paean to an age long past: the golden era of the 8 bit platformer.

Mario, Zelda, Megaman, Ducktales, Battletoads. They all have echoes throughout in Shovel Knight (and in the case of Battletoads, they’re actually in the game). But, most crucially, the creators of Shovel Knight deeply understood what made those games charming, delightful, and fun and utilizes those learnings to create a new game, not a shallow nostalgia trip. There’s a reason we moved on from punishing 8 bit platformers and Yacht Club Games comprehends this even while celebrating it.

Shovel Knight plays out in an overworld map with separate levels thematically tied to The Order of No Quarter (goons with names like King Knight and Propeller Knight and Plague Knight). The honorable Shovel Knight himself has set out to find the villainous Enchantress at whose hand his beloved Shield Knight has disappeared. There’s towns and shops filled with charming individuals/horse people and pun-spitting frogs. The game proves you can communicate quite a bit with nothing but 2d sprites, good level design, catchy music, smart excerpts of texts, and singing fish. The world of Shovel Knight is chock full of character.

Shovel Knight can swing his shovel, use it like a pogo stick (ala Scrooge McDuck in Nintendo’s Ducktales), and collect relics that do things like shoot fireballs and make him invulnerable. The controls are tight and your hero reacts like he ought to. The level design is similarly fine tuned. Concepts are introduced to you smartly before you have to use them in life or death situations (stuff like a platform that fires you into the ceiling appearing in an innocuous place before the next screen puts the same platform under 1-hit kill spikes). Even things like how far one platform is placed from another is designed thoughtfully. It’s the minutia and level flow that make this game so enjoyable — I can’t point out any specific level and think they missed the mark on that one. The art of 2d platformer design stopped progressing 20 years ago and Shovel Knight gobbled up everything we had learned until then and improved on it.

I conquered Shovel Knight. I beat it at least 4 times. Taking double damage with no checkpoints. In under 90 minutes. Using nothing but a shovel. Without dying. I did everything; I’m usually sick to death of a game by the time I reach that point, but I want more. Mastery of a simple concept can be greatly rewarding. Great platformers push that button for me.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (part II)

This is the second half of my review of Annals of the Former World. You should read the first part here.

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Wrapping up Rising from the Plains, McPhee explores the concept of ‘hot spots’. If you look at a geological map of the Pacific Ocean, you can see a chain of islands, underwater, extending from Hawaii most of the way to Asia. This is because there is an intense thrust of heat somewhere deep in the earth’s mantle — Hawaii, the Yellowstone Mountains, and portions of the Caribbean among others did not rise via plate Tectonics, but through these hot spots. The underwater islands are portions of Hawaii from the distant past. Eventually Kauai, northmost and oldest of the islands, will sink and new islands will arise southeast of Big Island and the chain will continue.

A hotspot lay under Yellowstone that conceivably traveled all the way under the US and fired Bermuda into the Atlantic.

 

Assembling California

For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California. […] I don’t mean to suggest that California was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces that we now call California nothing whatever was there. The continent ended far to the east. Where California has come to be, there was only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock.

This is a geological history of California, the newest segment of the United States. It’s also a story of settlers moving west, the doom of the Donner party, and especially the gold rush and the 49ers, a history of humanity directly triggering geologic events in a mad destructive frenzy to unearth more gold. It’s an excellent mix of history and science. As he wrote these books, McPhee learned better how to fluidly entwine the two. Like the Nevada books, my understanding was greatly enhanced by reading of areas I’ve lived/visited. It’s easy to image the miners shearing through the Sierras with high-powered hoses when you’ve actually driven by the pits they left behind.

McPhee travels with Eldridge Moores, a professor with an unlikely childhood in a tiny Arizona mining town, throughout the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and down through the central valley and over to the coastal ranges abutting San Francisco north and south. They do not remain state-side and revisit Moores’ old areas of study — Macedonia and Cyprus. Assembling California has a scope beyond the previous books, even while focusing on one state. The newness of California is fascinating and allows us to imagine how many other areas of the earth appeared in their infancy.

The book ends with a stirring present-tense account of what happened during the northern-California earthquake of 1989 (generally tied to San Francisco, it did greater damage nearer to its epicenter a couple hours south). Freeways collapsed on top of eachother, bridges swayed and lurched (the upper portion of the Bay Bridge smashed through the lower), skyscrapers jumped, bicyclists were thrown somersaulting through the air… it’s amazing only eighty-ish people died amidst such awesome destruction. The lesson here is that despite human and geologic time existing on such vastly different scales, they are still one and the same, occurring simultaneously.

 

Crossing the Craton

The last volume of this mammoth is much shorter and written considerably later than the others. It could only exist later because it relies on recent (for 1999) technologies that allow geologists much greater insight into the interior of the US — from Nebraska though Illinois (A.K.A. The Craton). For much of the history of science, the stable center of North America was considered to have been there, unchanged, since the fiery creation of the earth. Recent finds show that the craton came together like everywhere else: plates grinding and slamming into eachother with land aboard, little archipelagos and islands getting crunched together to form larger masses, ocean floor sliding under other ocean floor to melt and push up mountains. There’s mountains buried in Kansas, far below any human capacity to drill. Gravity surveys and isotopic dating allow us to see below.

This path pushes geology beyond the realm of rocks into astronomy and biology. It allows us to envision a world before plant life. It causes us to face the stunning truth that plenty of our modern rocks are reinforced or made of the fossilized shells of ancient vertebrates. It also gives us a vision of the early earth — extremely hot and withstanding the constant pummeling of meteors. Those same rocks are still there… somewhere. The oldest rocks any humans have discovered are around 4 billion years old, approaching the age of the earth.


This book was very long. I mostly enjoyed it. I worried throughout that I was not retaining enough. Indeed, a great fraction of this text passed through my brain and skiied beyond into the great blue yonder. Yet while camping this Memorial Day weekend, in northern California beside a river cutting into a mountain valley, leaping from water-eroded rocks that looked like ancient volcanic debris, laying down a towel upon pulverized rock and tracing the track of the river, I felt a geologic sense, an interest and understanding I owe to reading Annals of the Former World. It was only while writing this paragraph that I thought to look and confirm that the river I was staying on — The Eel river — was created by the San Andreas fault, which I was reading about while lounging on its shores.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

mad max guitar guySomewhere amidst humanity’s collective unconscious lies The Wasteland. Sand. Emptiness. Industrial collapse. An absence of life metaphored through lack of water or greenery. In the 80s, George Miller fashioned Mad Max’s desolate universe, surrounded by cold war paranoia and the potential for weaponized destruction of the earth, and it immediately lodged itself into the apocalyptic zeitgeist: other movies, books, video games are like to feature a variation of Miller’s wasteland. In 2015, the franchise inexplicably rejuvenated, we now fear environmental destruction instead of the atom bomb but the result is essentially the same. Neither nuclear winter nor catastrophic glacial melt creates the setting of Mad Max — but it’s how we envision a world dead, the unintended-but-obvious endgame of carelessness & greed.

Each of the Mad Max movies is tonally different. I know because I watched all three again in anticipation of Fury Road. The original (1979) has the captivating quality that all very early projects by talented directors have. Its vision is central and palpable. The apocalypse is background to an interpersonal tale that flangs outward to include a psychopathic biker gang. The violence is sparse and devastating, the aesthetic unmistakable. Road Warrior (1981) follows and Max has turned from family man to brooding, reluctant hero. Apocalypse has arrived. Gangs fight on the road for any scrap of gas to keep driving. The plot revolves around an enclave surrounding a tanker full of gas and their plan of escape, beyond the second coming of psycho biker gangs in bondage gear. Last comes Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which takes the series into extra campy, goofy territory. Mel Gibson’s Max is more of a grunting, disoriented non-hero. Tina Turner is resplendent as the villain. It’s kind of hilarious. Those four years changed a great deal.

So what is Fury Road? Non-stop action, that’s what. The main characters drive a weaponized, armored rig through the desert with an army of mad hooligans in hot pursuit. Then they turn around and do it again. There’s rare stoppages to breathe and they do not last long. The bondage attired goons of the 80s are replaced by white skinned bald guys who hunker and scrabble and leap like goblins & orcs (WETA workshop, masterminds behind Lord of the Rings costuming and imagery, were at work here). I missed the sexually deviant leather-clad-assless-chapped-codpieced cadre of the previous movies but there’s hints of weirdness and humor here and there. The action is tight & smart — not nonsensical blockbuster explosions and quick shots. Tension is engineered through unique situations: take for an example two racing vehicles, both with a passenger on the hood frantically siphoning gas and spitting it into the engine to stay ahead of the other. Or the Crouching Tiger-esque fight where Max engages Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in fistfight while chained to a corpse he must keep navigating around/with.

It’s exhilarating. I haven’t seen a great action flick in years, it seems. I missed some of the small scale quirkiness of early Mad Max’s, but I am also glad this movie struck its own path and avoided a nostalgic Thunderdome rehash. The movie unapologetically blames everyone — the good guys, the bad guys, the in-betweens, the audience — for the destruction of the world. There’s a scene with some characters screaming “You killed the world!” at another character while he denies it. We exult in the action and violence of the movie, revel in our own projected destruction. It’s the villains people dress up as. Fury Road doesn’t so much warn us of a potential future; it shows us what we think it looks like and asks us to celebrate along with it.